Top Ten Of 2021: Mark Hunt-Bryden

Last year I was extolling the amount of new music that had burst forth during this time of global uncertainty, but the reality is it was always going to be this year when conditions eased slightly that the pent-up expression of the pandemic, and all the social chaos, became a more widespread and audible reality. This year I have been confronted with a top albums list that hit the requirement halfway through the year, with some amazing records still to be released and the list has had to require even more serious attention and surgery than normal.

Mark Hunt-Bryden

In the past I’ve interspersed my lists with my wider tastes that are covered more by the mainstream press and receive far more attention, which is unfair as any year an album is released by a long-standing British six-piece it is going to take one slot regardless. So, whilst I have a separate list of ‘top ten’ albums for bands that are on major labels, or regularly get column inches in major publications, I wanted to concentrate this top ten entirely on bands that we’ve covered here at The Sleeping Shaman and deserve the spotlight.

Without further ado and in reverse order, here are my top ten records of the year.

10. Lost Dog Street Band ‘The Magnolia Sessions’

Lost Dog Street Band 'The Magnolia Sessions'

A late, left field entry to the list, this stripped-down live set recorded under a Magnolia tree in Nashville featuring husband and wife duo Lost Dog Street Band is a raw and surprisingly emotional set. Featuring covers from some of the greats of country and folk, as well as a few of their own choice numbers, Benjamin Tod and Ashley Mae deliver a heart wrenching, soulful tunes that seek to continue the traditions of the American troubadour, but in reality, delivers so much more on many levels.

Call it dark country, folk, whatever, The Magnolia Sessions showcase incredible artists in an intimate setting and this set is one of the finest from either series. Having picked this up to review I couldn’t stop listening to it and you are emotionally dead inside if these tales of sorrow and hope don’t penetrate even the coldest of hearts.

Label: Anti-Corporate Music

9. Kal-El ‘Dark Majesty’

Kal-El ‘Dark Majesty’

Super long and epic stoner rock from Norwegians Kal-El, their fifth release Dark Majesty is a sixty-five-minute-long sprawling epic journey flavoured with space rock, progressive leanings, and retro vibes. Mixing muscular riffing that would be at home on some harder hitting albums there is light and airy moments of bliss and more importantly huge passages of grooving accessible rock music.

More for the fans of indulgent, album formatted art, Dark Majesty was described by my colleague Liam in his review as a ‘space opera’, which totally nails the concept, the scale, and the ambition the band try to capture here and for the large part succeed.  Bold sounding and clear production raise this album from another fuzzed-out stoner album to something far more grandiose and rewarding.

Label: Majestic Mountain Records

8. Spider Kitten ‘Major Label Debut’

Spider Kitten ‘Major Label Debut’

Spider Kitten are one of my favourite artists that I’ve discovered in the past decade. Armed with a frankly ridiculously sized back catalogue, the Newport based doom rockers have dabbled in prog rock, doom, Americana, 90s alternative, and even gospel in their various forms. Their latest album, and first full length since 2016, is a razor-sharp, blink and you’ll miss it, collection of eight grunge influenced tracks that see them apply their angular, heavy melodies that harks back to the heyday of Seattle.

Featuring chunky, catchy riffs and hooks that will have you humming that earworm in the shower and harmonies to die for, Major Label Debut is in turn beautiful, sad, and terrifying. Recorded before the pandemic and finally released this November, the band made my mentions last year and now everyone gets to experience what I have known for ages, it’s fucking great.

Label: Independent

7. King Woman ‘Celestial Blues’

King Woman 'Celestial Blues'

Pitchfork endorsed rockers King Woman showed much promise on their lauded debut, Created In The Image Of Suffering and here on their sophomore album, they take a bold leap forward to produce a complete vision of a record. Every tonal shift and intricate piece is woven together to blend the heavy, rich passages with the melodic and delicate in an album that is chock full of emotion and atmosphere.

Frontwoman Kris Esfandiari undeniably steals the show as she croons and wails, shrieks and rages in quite possibly the best female vocal performance this side of Chelsea Wolfe. Backed by a band that are firing on all cylinders, Celestial Blues is an emotional journey that burns with intensity and is haunting in its beauty. Do believe the hype.

Label: Relapse Records

6. Indica Blues ‘We Are Doomed’

Indica Blues ‘We Are Doomed’

It feels like February was a lifetime ago when I was making a Sunday roast for the kids and my six-year-old was requesting Indica Blues second album because of the awesome burnt orange coloured vinyl APF Records released it on, but regardless of the aesthetics, We Are Doomed is worth treating your ears to even without the luxury 12” format. Sonically a soup of fuzz, grunge and British influenced doom metal.

Very much a love letter to both genres, this is a massive, heavy album that feels super accessible and catchy at the same time. In David’s review he said it’s ‘a very easy record to enjoy’ and he’s right. It flies by with singable choruses but just enough grit to make sure that it has you reaching for the record needle to start it all again. The soundtrack to our doom has never sounded so good.

Label: APF Records

5. King Buffalo ‘The Burden Of Restlessness’

King Buffalo ‘The Burden Of Restlessness’

The first of three albums to be released by King Buffalo, the long-standing psychedelic three-piece from Rochester, New York, The Burden Of Restlessness quite rightly had critics and writers extremely excited as the trio’s fourth album delivered on a level that didn’t matter if it was part of a trilogy or a stand-alone concept.

Combining elements of drone, angular technical riffs and a low end like the shifting of tectonic plates, The Burden Of Restlessness hits hard when it needs to and caresses you when it wants. Tense and urgent, the songwriting on the album is expansive and narrative, pulling you into the album as the music rises and falls around you. Part prog, part heavy rock, part psych, the most frustrating thing about the album is the expectation it has built for parts two and three because this album is practically flawless.

Label: Stickman Records

4. Deafheaven ‘Infinite Granite’

Deafheaven ‘Infinite Granite’

Deafheaven have drawn more ire than Jethro Tull’s Metal Grammy Award. The pop style marketing could not be further removed from the aesthetic of the early pioneers, not to mention the stylised blackgaze welding of indie sensibilities to shimmering intensity. This year Deafheaven finally grew beyond the hate and embraced the band they always threatened to be by largely dispensing with the tortured screams and buzzsaw riffing in order to focus on the ambient, light shoegaze that has punctuated their heavier moments.

George Clark reveals a tender, thoughtful and introspective side through the lyrics, that have been present since Sunbather but are now intelligible, adding an extra layer and dimension to the fresh sounding album with his rich crooning. Infinite Granite may not resemble the band’s previous ferocity, but it’s a beautifully crafted piece of art that may well be the finest thing the band has produced.

Label: Sargent House

3. The Hyena Kill ‘A Disconnect’

The Hyena Kill ‘A Disconnect’

Another early release that has remained in the top contender’s slot since its arrival. The emotive rockers came roaring back with an incredible set of tunes with A Disconnect. It’s been a long time since I have felt such a palpable air of excitement about an upcoming release as The Hyena Kill’s second full length. A cohesive and personal story delivering an incredible journey through heartache and tragic circumstances that swept the board to universal acclaim.

Whether they’re pulling at your heart strings with the highly personal addiction tale of Thin, or smashing your face with the post-rock of Bleached, the album positively blisters past, a thoroughly modern, multi-faceted, and fantastic rock record. Don’t make the mistake of passing by The Hyena Kill on their upcoming live shows, if there is any justice, on the strength of this album alone, they deserve to be massive.

Label: APF Records

2. Yawning Sons ‘Sky Island’

Yawning Sons ‘Sky Island’

It’s one thing to capture lightning in a bottle once, it’s a whole other thing to do it again. Sky Island, manages to recapture the special vibe of their debut and take the music further. Featuring a plethora of vocal performances from the original collaborators and adding Hermano’s Dandy Brown, this is an album that deserves to be heard. Laidback cool surf rock and desert-dry musings collide in an album as dizzying and stunning as the desert which gave it life.

Darker, lighter, more progressive, more immediate, Sky Island is the proverbial turning up to 11 in terms of everything it brings to the table. Wistful, joyful, full of regret, and at times still a celebration, Yawning Sons have crafted another special album that tugs at the heartstrings and speaks to the soul. Also presented on one of the most beautiful vinyl editions I have ever owned.

Label: Ripple Music

1. Sons Of Alpha Centauri ‘Push’

Sons Of Alpha Centauri ‘Push’

A vastly different prospect from their previous releases, Push features the guest talents of Will Haven drummer Mitch Wheeler and in a massive departure, vocals courtesy of Far’s Jonah Matranga. To accommodate these changes, Sons Of Alpha Centauri crafted an album that harks back to the late nineties post-hardcore sound but combines it with space rock and progressive leanings.

Capable of tugging at your heartstrings with beautiful songs like Saturn, or dropping hammering like blows with The Enemy, Push is packed with memorable moments that channel the emotive lyrics of Matranga. Featuring anthems that walk the line between hard rock and pop, the band just click and are elevated beyond their already high standards.

This may just be a stop along their journey, but I ‘got’ this album on all levels the moment I heard it, and despite a plethora of albums coming before and after, this is the best thing I have heard this year.

Label: Exile On Mainstream Records

Honourable Mentions

And now for my honourable mentions which I urge you not to overlook and sleep on some great releases. Highly recommended are Wall and Wasted Death EPs (two from each) that deliver high-quality instrumental stoner/doom, and savage hardcore metal respectively, as well as Lair Of The White Worm and Toom EPs, all brought to you by the ever-reliable APF Records. None APF releases include thoroughly modern death metal from Beyond Grace and Werewolves, blackened doom/post-metal from Lunar Ark and She Said Destroy, sludge laced metalcore from Yellowtooth and old school industrial from Dome Runner.

So that’s all for this year.

Much like in the writing room on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, the clock is resetting and we’re on to 2022 in the blink of an eye. I have to say, this list barely scratches the surface of all the fantastic music out there this past year so share, connect, and support the scene in any way you can. As dreary as the world can be at times, it has a great soundtrack.

Scribed by: Mark Hunt-Bryden